California low-wage workers demand more amid rising cost of living

Fast food cooks and cashiers. Guardians. Housekeepers. Hospital staff. School bus drivers. Guardians. State employees.

Workers in all kinds of industries are demanding more wages and benefits in order to keep up with California’s rising cost of living. They’re backed by a wave of Democratic-led legislation rolling through the state Capitol — converging with Governor Gavin Newsom’s ballot measures and funding demands — to create a moment for workers’ rights that seems unique even for one of the most unionized. States friendly to the nation.

The calls come as support staff at Los Angeles Unified — the nation’s second-largest school district — walked out of striking classrooms and state workers rallied outside the Capitol in Sacramento this week.

“We used to be able to afford to go to restaurants, but even fast food is expensive…we used to donate to food banks and now we find ourselves going to those same food banks to get things for ourselves- same,” Department of Motor Vehicles employee and SEIU Local 1000 member Tammy Rodriguez tearfully said on the steps of the Capitol Monday ahead of contract negotiations with the state. “As state employees, we should be able to afford only everyday things.”

Earlier this month, domestic workers such as nannies and housekeepers stood on those same steps to pass a bill by State Senator María Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles) that would would afford the job security protections offered to most other employees in the state.

“I actually had a miscarriage because of the level of dangerous conditions I encountered,” California Domestic Workers Coalition member Mirna Arana said in Spanish through a translator, describing the cleaning 10 houses a day at the height of his life. workload. “No other worker should go through what I went through.”

Tia Orr, executive director of Service Employees International Union California, said while the state has “always been the tip of the spear” when it comes to workers’ rights, the ongoing pandemic frustrations of those workers deemed essential, combined with inflationary pressures , have created a particular dynamic.

Bills introduced this year include a mandate for a $25 minimum wage for health care workers; a proposal to more than double paid sick leave; and new regulations for fast food franchisees regarding wages and hours. Meanwhile, a ballot measure will ask voters next year if they support raising the statewide minimum wage to $18 an hour, which, if passed, would make it the highest in the country.

“We are moving forward with an aggressive agenda that we believe is a game-changer and hope to shift the balance of power in favor of the worker,” said Orr, who represents 700,000 service workers. “People are tired of corporate power. And it’s going to take more than salaries: they want a clear, loud voice and a seat at the table.

California’s already deep income inequality has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic as the state’s rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer. Income is often not enough to meet basic needs in the state, according to a Public Policy Institute of California report released this month.

Families in the state’s top income bracket earn 11 times more than families at the bottom, $291,000 versus $26,000 respectively, according to the report. In 1980, this gap was less: the best-paid families earned seven times more than low-income families. The current gap reflects income growth of 63% for the richest over the past 40 years and growth of only 7% for the poorest, according to the report.

That growing divide has sparked outrage among lower-paid workers seeking to hold their wealthiest employers accountable, said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in worker organizing and protests,” he said, pointing to a historic strike by University of California workers launched in November that lasted for weeks and led to protests. wage gains. “During the pandemic, we had such a contradiction where people were being celebrated as essential workers on the front line, but they were earning poverty wages. Now is a time when the workers really show their displeasure.

More strikes could be on the horizon. The Writers Guild of America is negotiating with Hollywood studios, and workers at California State University are demanding more in terms of wages and benefits.

Other bills introduced this year include a proposal to allow home-based providers who care for elderly or disabled Californians to negotiate with the state over wages and benefits — just as Newsom allowed home-based providers. daycare services to do so in 2021.

A bill by State Sen. Lola Smallwood-Cuevas (D-Los Angeles), a former labor organizer, seeks to protect workers who report labor violations, including complaints of wage theft or unequal pay. pay, dismissal or harassment.

Investing in workers now avoids greater costs to the state in the long run, as the public safety net must fill in the gaps left by employers, she said.

“Labour is no longer doing what it used to do, which is supporting families and communities, so we’re doing this job as decision makers and our state budget is overrun because we have a model. commercial that does not meet basic needs,” Smallwood-Cuevas said. .

The California Chamber of Commerce has called many employee-focused bills “job killers,” warning they could have unintended — and costly — consequences for employers and could hamper business growth and employment. employment in the state.

California is home to some of the toughest employee rights laws in the country, and Chamber President and CEO Jennifer Barrera worries about the enactment of more labor laws, especially with blanket regulations for different types of industries.

“California has long been considered the state with the most protective and stringent work requirements in the entire country,” Barrera said. “For the most part, we are not necessarily opposed to the underlying policies. It’s really about how they are implemented. How do you make it all work in the workplace without the potential threat of a devastating lawsuit that could put you out of business? »

State Sen. Brian Dahle (R-Bieber) said California employers will struggle to afford to compete with an ever-increasing minimum wage. Instead, lawmakers should focus on policies that lower the cost of living.

He pointed to Republican-backed proposals to cut energy and gas costs that have been pushed back for regulatory and other reasons.

“You have to pay a higher salary because people can’t afford to live here. Food prices are rising, rents are skyrocketing. At the end of the day, wages don’t solve the problem, you have to drive down the cost of living,” said Dahle, who lost his bid for governor last year. “If we can lower their electric bill, that’s like giving them a five dollar an hour raise.”

Dahle doubted that any bill supported by the workers would receive scrutiny from the Democratic-majority Legislature.

“Let’s be frank, the unions in this building, there’s no doubt about it, they’re powerful,” he said.

Last year, influential labor organizations poured millions into legislative races to help pro-union candidates. The SEIU has aided its prime candidates by pumping nearly $4 million into just eight independent spenders.

Newsom has been pro-worker: He signed the nation’s first law on Labor Day that created a council to set new standards for fast-food working conditions and wages. That plan is now on hold after restaurant and trade groups collected enough signatures to secure a measure on next year’s ballot asking voters to reverse it.

He also signed a law that makes it easier for agricultural workers to join unions.

But he could pump the brakes as he warned of big investments underway in a projected budget deficit. He has previously taken on unions, including the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, a formidable political player that represents plumbers, electricians, ironworkers and construction workers. He disappointed the powerful California Nurses Assn. when he backed away from single-payer health care promises.

Joe Sanberg, a Los Angeles investor and anti-poverty campaigner who led the 2024 minimum wage vote measure, is less optimistic about the success of the workers’ rights bills, particularly regarding the wages.

There was a need to pay the minimum wage directly to voters, said Sanberg, who was considering a 2020 presidential bid and said he was “undecided” about whether he would run for governor in 2026.

“Anyone who trusts Gavin Newsom to support higher wages is being reckless,” he said. “Why hasn’t it already been done?” What stands in the way? »

Los Angeles Times

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